Russia, China Anxieties Dominate Annual Hearing on Global Security Threats

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
From left, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray; Gen. Paul Nakasone, U.S. Cyber Command director; Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines; and CIA Director William J. Burns testify during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on March 8, 2023.

Russian President Vladimir Putin appears prepared to dig in for a long fight in Ukraine, betting that he can hold out in the face of Western resolve and military support, the nation’s top intelligence official said Wednesday.

“Putin most likely calculates that time works in his favor and that prolonging the war, including with potential pauses in the fighting, may be his best remaining pathway to eventually securing Russia’s strategic interests in Ukraine, even if it takes years,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the Senate Intelligence Committee during an annual hearing on global threats.

But Russia does not have the troops or ammunition to take and hold more Ukrainian territory, Haines said. Fighting continues along a front hundreds of miles long in the east of the country, where forces are at times fighting over mere meters of ground.

“At present, the Ukrainian armed forces remain locked in a struggle to defend against Russian offensives across eastern Ukraine. And while these Russian assaults are costly for Russia, the extent to which Ukrainian forces are having to draw down their reserves and equipment, as well as suffer further casualties, will all likely factor into Ukraine’s ability to go on the offensive later this spring,” Haines added.

A new intelligence assessment released to coincide with the hearing finds that the Russian military “will continue to face issues of attrition, personnel shortages, and morale challenges that have left its forces vulnerable to Ukrainian counterattacks.” Putin has announced a partial mobilization of troops to fight in Ukraine, but they are mostly “untrained and unprepared reservists.” Their addition to the military ranks will help shore up personnel shortages in the short term “but risks undermining Russian domestic support for the conflict,” the assessment finds.

“Moscow will remain a formidable and less predictable challenge to the United States in key areas during the next decade but still will face a range of constraints,” the assessment concludes.

By contrast, China, and specifically its state communist party, “represents both the leading and most consequential threat to U.S. national security and leadership globally,” said Haines, who was joined by other intelligence agency leaders and the director of the FBI.

China’s “specific ambitions and capabilities make it our most serious and consequential intelligence rival,” Haines said. Other officials and lawmakers raised a range of concerns about China’s military aims involving Taiwan, theft of intellectual property via computer hacking and the potential to use the popular app TikTok – owned by a Chinese company – as a vehicle for state propaganda.

“Beijing claims that the United States is using Taiwan as a ‘pawn’ to undermine China’s rise, and will continue to take stronger measures to push back against perceived increases in support to Taiwan,” the intelligence assessment found.

Army Lt. Gen. Scott D. Berrier, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said that “the Chinese are advancing very, very rapidly in everywhere we’re fighting where a domain exists,” including space, the air, on the ground and on computer networks.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the vice chairman of the committee, asked whether the Chinese government could use TikTok ahead of an invasion of Taiwan “to make sure that Americans are seeing videos arguing why Taiwan belongs to China.”

FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said that was possible and noted “we’re not sure that we would see many of the outward signs of it happening if it was happening.”

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), the committee chairman, raised similar concerns about China’s manipulation of technology as well as the speed with which it was outpacing other nations, and principally the United States, in the development of wireless communications, semiconductors and artificial intelligence.

China “is now a near-peer competitor with the United States in its economy, technology and military capabilities,” Warner said in his opening remarks.

The threats hearing traversed a range of other topics, including the war in Ukraine, the potential causes of the mysterious ailment known as Havana syndrome and the intelligence community’s push to renew what officials call an essential statutory authority to collect the electronic communications of foreigners who use U.S.-based communications infrastructure.

Wray sought to allay privacy concerns surrounding the surveillance law, known as Section 702, which is due to expire at year’s end.

Reauthorizing the law is a top priority for the intelligence community, which contends it is a crucial tool for countering threats posed by China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, as well as foreign terrorists. Wray noted that FBI queries of the database for information on U.S. persons – a significant concern of privacy advocates – dropped by 93 percent last year.

“That’s not an aberration,” Wray said.

The actual number of queries was “fewer than 204,090 times,” a senior FBI official said after the hearing, noting that even that number was probably an overcount. The official said that internal changes made in 2021 and last year contributed to the drop, and said that “it is not a routine or common practice to query Section 702 data in criminal investigations unrelated to national security.”